Over There

Do new plays have a better shot at success in Britain than in the U.S.? Let's investigate.

By Robert Hedley and Harriet Power

The instruction we find abroad is like fire. We fetch it from our neighbors, kindle it at home, communicate it to others, and it becomes the property of all. —Voltaire

In 2009 we read Outrageous Fortune: The Life and Times of the New American Play. In February 2010 we heard the author of that widely discussed book, Todd London, along with his collaborator Ben Pesner, Theatre Development Fund executive director Victoria Bailey, new-play specialist David Dower and cultural economist Diane Ragsdale, mull over the dire state of American new-play development at a Pew Center for Arts and Heritage–sponsored panel discussion. For years (as leaders of struggling theatre companies and educators of young artists), we’ve anguished over the paradox most theatremakers, especially playwrights, know all too well, and what Outrageous Fortune lays out so clearly: Even established writers can’t make a living in the theatre, while programming even one new play per season can carry box-office risk great enough to close a theatre on the financial brink.

And so we headed to London for five months to investigate Great Britain’s new-play culture. Having admired the London theatre scene and attended several world premieres there by American as well as British and international playwrights, we assumed we’d encounter a writer-friendly culture and aimed to assess its specifics: Do English playwrights have sustainable lives in the theatre? Are more new plays produced there, and if so, why? How do so many new-play-producing theatres stay afloat and attract audiences?

While five months is not long enough for sweeping conclusions, after seeing 62 new plays and adaptations at venues of every size and mission, and interviewing dozens of playwrights, artistic directors, literary managers, dramaturgs, actors, agents and producers, we found that our London cousins have no magic bullet. Yes, it’s a writer-friendly culture; yes, new plays constitute a considerably greater portion of the repertoire. But U.K. playwrights struggle with similar challenges: Few make their living writing solely for the stage, few enjoy subsequent productions, many lament the focus on the “hot new writer” at the expense of midcareer and even mature playwrights. And yet!—noteworthy differences, astonishing artists, unusual initiatives and exciting approaches changed our thinking about how our own working system can better sustain playwrights.

The Perennial Paradox

Excessive “development” can take away the imperfections that often make a play interesting. —Sebastian Born, associate director (literary), National Theatre

Our London theatre colleagues unanimously champion a development process minutely tailored to the individual needs of play and playwright—an approach shared (but not always delivered) by American new-play theatremakers. Jeanie O’Hare, who served as the Royal Shakespeare Company’s dramaturg from 2005 to 2012 (and is now chair of playwriting at Yale), has deep new-play experience in both the U.K. and the U.S. She notes: “Whenever the work is tailored to the writer, the best results appear.

“When writers are fed through a homogenizing workshop system where everyone gets together, reads out his or her work, and inevitably starts taking on each other’s voices and styles—that dulls. My favorite process was David Greig visiting all the real-life locations mentioned in Macbeth, at night, with musicians, actors, fires and ghost stories, then writing like crazy the next day.” She’s talking about Greig’s Macbeth “sequel,” Dunsinane, which premiered in 2010 in an RSC production at the Hampstead Theatre to rave reviews, then toured the U.K.

After our first month of meetings with London playwrights and other artists, we found ourselves changing the language that framed our research, from new-play development (the common U.S. parlance) to new-play production, a telling distinction. Many London-based theatre artists have also worked in the U.S., and all agree: It’s easier to get your play produced in London. O’Hare offers this comparison: “Sophistication and nuance are big features of American plays. British plays are very happy to sacrifice sophistication for a rougher structure and a more urgent language. The polishing of the playwright’s work then happens over the first few years through productions, in public, rather than in private and in the classroom, as tends to happen in the U.S.”

In London, more play development culminates in full production. Plays deemed “unready” in the U.S. go up in the U.K.; audiences respond. Veteran playwright David Eldridge, whose subversively funny, heart-stopping new family play In Basildon captivated us (and sold out) at the Royal Court, asks this interesting question: “Who says a play has to be perfect?” The Antelopes, a consortium of U.K. playwrights, insists that writers take responsibility for finishing their plays rather than submitting rough drafts that invite too much input from too many voices.

As the National Theatre’s Sebastian Born puts is, “Arts Council England funds theatres to produce new work, rather than endlessly develop it through readings and workshops. The choice of what to produce is therefore not mediated entirely by assumed appeal to the audience.”

Every playwright with whom we spoke notes the singular importance of seeing work onstage—their own and others. It’s the way they get better. Playwright Greig, in a 2011 London Observer interview, describes the impact of seeing Michael Gambon perform Caryl Churchill’s A Number: “I suddenly, really viscerally understood that the ‘wright’ at the end of ‘playwright’ is indicative of the fact that a craftsperson’s job is to fashion vehicles, just like a cartwright or wheelwright, which an actor can inhabit and travel in.”

Perhaps the development/production paradox is best captured by playwright Torben Betts: “Alan Ayckbourn helped me ‘develop’ my first play [A Listening Heaven] before he produced it—he pointed out certain structural faults and helped me improve it a lot. But I also have to trust my own instincts as a writer.”

One Exciting Model

The RSC’s ongoing sensation Matilda the Musical, by Dennis Kelly with music and lyrics by Tim Minchin, made for the most striking play-development success story we encountered. Seeing this production at the West End’s Cambridge Theatre with a wildly diverse audience was a highlight of our five months in London: irreverent, big, beautifully and boldly acted and designed, subversive, constantly surprising, hilarious and moving, it turned us into the utterly captivated viewers we used to be, always want to be, yet rarely manage to be after decades in the profession. We understand why Matilda’s initial 12-week Stratford run sold out, why its West End transfer continues to sell out, why folks of all ages line up for same-day discounted tickets, why it’s going to Broadway in 2013.

Dramaturg O’Hare’s role in this new-musical success story was huge. She was central to Matilda from the start of conversations with the Roald Dahl estate through seven years’ development to opening night. “I knew we needed Matilda adapters with political sensibility and acuteness—at the RSC we’ve always had freedom to choose unconventional artists,” O’Hare notes. “I felt the book had to be written first, and wanted a very serious writer. Dennis had never seen a musical and doesn’t like them, so he seemed perfect! We worked together two years and felt pretty secure with the third draft. I knew Matthew [Warchus] was the right person to direct.”

Original author Roald Dahl himself “was the mediator in the room—a kind of sixth presence.” Using child actors was “an 11th-hour decision”—Warchus thought he’d use puppets and adult actors, but a final workshop using kids for the first time galvanized the creative team.

O’Hare summarized the process: “We set out to create a musical for people who do not like musicals. I consciously did everything that I was advised not to do, and a great deal of my energy was spent sharpening our thinking. Our process was very hot, and hilarious—I don’t think any of us will ever laugh so much. And seeing that first preview, after all our work over seven years, was magical.”

London’s New-Play Ecology

The Studio at the National Theatre is widely seen as one of the best places, if not the best place, to develop new work. Writers receive the resources—actors, directors, design support, specialized experts, space and a salary—to try things out behind closed doors, without the pressure of performance or even reaching a conclusion.

“In giving writers a salary and desk space, the Studio gets playwrights to treat writing as a job—something often elusive in a self-managed career,” says Will Mortimer, literary manager of the Hampstead. Annually, the Studio offers 25 “attachments” to writers, lasting two weeks to three months. Some projects attain full production at one of the National’s three theatres, while those better suited to outside theatres get recommended. London fringe theatres benefit directly—many can’t afford to commission playwrights, but receive new plays developed in the Studio (or other institutions) from emerging producers, directors and the writers themselves.

What’s more, virtually every new play that rears its head in the U.K. gets published. “All of my work is considered for second and third productions because producers can buy it and read it,” confirms Anthony Weigh, a playwright and associate artist at the Donmar Warehouse. Here’s how it works at the Royal Court: Literary manager Chris Campbell sends a description of every play the company will produce to four publishers—Nick Hern, Methuen, Faber and Faber and Oberon. The playwright and chosen publisher agree on a final publication date, usually a late rehearsal which precludes text changes made during previews. The published scripts can be purchased after each performance, often at a bargain £3, which keeps a play in professional circulation, nationally and internationally, and extends its life via amateur rights and educational uses. And publication enables more detailed theatre criticism. “Critical engagement is infinitely enhanced by being able to read the text as you’re reviewing a play,” remarks dramaturg David Lane.

There’s a modicum of funding available for both individual artists and companies. O’Hare summarizes what most London theatre professionals believe: “Without the Arts Council, the unsolicited play-submissions system would disappear overnight. We would go back to the bad old days of directors programming their university chum who just happens to have written a play. Nepotism and cliques would close down the industry very quickly. The quality of the work would suffer and audiences would dwindle because no longer would the whole dynamism of society be represented onstage.”

“Subsidy impacts who can take part in the first place,” confirms Soho Theatre literary associate Sarah Dickenson, noting that the Arts Council support encourages participation across the broadest possible spectrum of storytellers. The Arcola Theatre’s Leyla Nazli echoes her sentiment: “Individual emerging writers can apply to the Arts Council for funding, which offers a great many opportunities for them to develop, and also benefits the British theatre scene as a whole.” Playwright Duncan Macmillan points out that Arts Council subsidies “help keep ticket prices low, and to some extent free up theatres to put creativity first. It also keeps the number of voices for creative input to a minimum—no commercial sponsors or underwriters giving their two cents.”

“Writ Large,” the 2009 report of the British Theatre Consortium for Arts Council England, provided this revealing statistic: With Arts Council funding, some “uplift” theatres (like those cited above) increased their percentage of new work to more than 70 percent! “Writ Large” also reported that box-office receipts appeared to contradict the notion that new plays don’t sell.

National support for new voices (unheard of in the U.S.) is invaluable in the U.K. All theatres that receive Arts Council funding are charged with diversifying not only the voices and stories that go before the public, but diversifying that public—in particular, engaging nonwhite and young viewers. London has become one of the most diverse cities in the world, and the theatre, far from being peripheral, is central to the debate as the nation radically changes its face, its demographics. Some 64 venues in and around London have become centers for community, magnets for young people, and sources of genuine dialogue across ethnicity and culture.

London has a different critical climate as well. “Here theatre critics are, in contrast to the U.S., part of the industry, so they tend to look for positives when they review new work,” maintains playwright Fin Kennedy. Indeed, we were repeatedly struck both by U.K. critics’ depth of engagement and tolerance for a new play’s weak spots. Every theatre professional we interviewed spoke of theatre as the U.K.’s opportunity to have a national dialogue with itself about contemporary issues and challenges—a dialogue in which London theatre critics want to participate.

7 Snapshots: Making a Difference

National Theatre. With the successes of War Horse and One Man, Two Guvnors—on the West End and Broadway, various U.K. tours and an impressive in-house season—the National Theatre continues its role as a world theatre leader. The eight plays we saw this past spring fit the mandate of a national theatre: much new work and also, as lit manager Born notes, “keeping the existing repertoire alive, which often means thinking of, and interpreting, works from the canon in new ways.” Many of these initiatives start in the Studio, the National’s research-and-development engine. Since the beginning of 2012, the National has contracted 14 new plays/adaptations, with eight more agreed-upon subject to contract; a total of 43 commissions currently await delivery/rewrites. The National stages 20 productions per year, and new plays figure significantly. In a 2010 Guardian interview, artistic director Nicholas Hytner, widely credited with making new writing fundamental to the National, cites “constant conversation with writers” as central to the joy he takes in his job.

The Royal Court. This company remains the epicenter of new-play production in London. “The Royal Court’s most important attribute is its relentless momentum—new plays all the time; constant demand for new plays and new writers,” attests the company’s literary manager, Chris Campbell. Actor, translator and former deputy literary manager at the National, Campbell is one of the busiest new-play cultivators in London and beyond. Incredibly, he personally handles all new-play submissions, assigning them to paid readers with the maxim, “Read as much of the play as you need to.” In turn, he reads every play his readers deem interesting, and everything from playwrights who interest him. (A new Churchill play had landed on his desk the day we met with him; he was thrilled.) When he responds positively to work he knows isn’t for the R.C., he recommends other theatres as potential producers.

When a script is chosen, Campbell, after consulting with artistic director Dominic Cooke, discusses with the playwright those aspects of the play that need work. Directors and actors may be suggested or urged, since the R.C.’s prestige allows almost any of the nation’s top artists to be engaged—but the playwright has final say in these matters. Every writer enjoys a different process, perhaps private readings, or a one-to-seven-day workshop, with the actors and director who will create the eventual production. The R.C.’s objective is not to create a play that will move on to larger production, but rather to produce quality work.

The Royal Shakespeare Company. New plays—at the RSC? Isn’t that the company devoted to remounts of Shakespeare and the classics? In part. But, in fact, since the 1960s, new work has become central to the RSC. Harold Pinter (the company’s first playwright-in-residence), Edward Albee, Edward Bond, Howard Brenton, Marina Carr, Caryl Churchill, Martin Crimp, David Edgar, Martin McDonagh, Wole Soyinka, Tom Stoppard, Timberlake Wertenbaker and many others premiered plays at the RSC. And this is one of the few theatres anywhere to include in its literary department an international playwright-in-residence—Tarell Alvin McCraney in 2011, and currently Mark Ravenhill, whose new translation of Galileo runs in 2013. These “embedded playwrights” earn a little over £30,000 per year, plus housing.

In her eight years at the RSC, O’Hare commissioned 75 new writers, resulting in more than 40 world premieres. RSC artistic director Michael Boyd notes, “Jeanie has woven writers and artists into the fabric of the RSC, guided them, challenged them, and made both the new and the established artist feel at home.” Thirty to forty writers are under commission (at £11,500 each) at the RSC at any given time, from the six heading into production to the six at the thinking stage (no first draft yet), and everything in between. Literary manager Pippa Hill explains, “We typically commission mid-career playwrights who seem ready to write big plays, to handle the scale of our thrust stages. And when the process is working as it should, it’s different for each play. In The Mouse and His Child [Tamsin Oglesby’s adaption of Russell Hoban’s story], two characters get picked up by a bird and flown over the countryside. The director Paul Hunter explored this both with puppets and with actors. With so many animals in the play, the writer needed a sense of how the staging might work in order to move forward. This is the part of the job I love.” The Mouse and His Child premieres in 2013.

Both O’Hare and Hill made sure that the RSC’s literary, public relations and marketing staffs are based in London so they can compete geographically and conceptually. “If you’re not in London,” Hill notes, “you’re not connected.” In 2012, the RSC launched a five-year partnership with London’s Roundhouse Theatre to collaborate on annual seasons aimed at engaging 11-to-25-year-olds as both creators and viewers.

Hampstead Theatre. Headed by artistic director Edward Hall since 2010, the Hampstead seems to be recuperating its once-held prominence in new-play production. Pinter, Michael Frayn, David Hare, Pam Gems, Brian Friel and other notables had early work produced there; now Hare is back, followed by Howard Brenton with a new play. Earlier in 2012, premieres of Farewell to the Theatre by American playwright Richard Nelson and the adaptation of Chariots of Fire by Mike Bartlett got raves. Both were exciting productions, impeccably acted and directed, supported by boldly imaginative designs. The Michael Frayn space downstairs is a protected studio where selected writers’ new work gets a fully staged, limited run with no “official” opening and no invited critics. Studio-produced work can then move upstairs or elsewhere as “world premieres.” Will Mortimer, literary manager, on the Studio: “For me, what is most important is that the play happens. It doesn’t gather dust, it doesn’t get read, workshopped, put in a holding pattern. It lives and breathes in performance.”

Arcola Theatre. “Arcola means full stop: space with no boundaries. We aim to surprise, take risks, innovate, open our doors to all,” avows executive producer Leyla Nazli, who co-founded the company in 2000 with artistic director Mehmet Ergen (who also runs a sister Arcola in Istanbul). Arriving at the theatre’s East London space, one enters a former paint factory, and then—amazement. We saw six Arcola plays, from a dazzling remount of Philip Ridley’s Pitchfork Disney, to Sofi Oksanen’s Purge (about Estonia, past and present), to Ade Solanke’s Pandora’s Box in the Arcola Tent, canvas whipping in a blazing wind, packed with viewers of every age and color, giggling, then gripped, by its story of identity, family, immigration. The theatre produces in-house work in tandem with presented work, which Nazli selects from “some of the most exciting young companies in the world.” Twenty-eight productions were staged January through July in 2012, alongside such new-play activities as a Congolese drama, a “60-plus program” for seniors, and Ala Turka, a Turkish and Kurdish group that reimagines classics such as Romeo and Juliet and creates original work. Arts Council England recently awarded Arcola £1 million in capital funding in addition to artistic and educational-outreach support.

Soho Theatre. There may be as many as seven shows up on any given night in this company’s three spaces—plays, musicals, cabarets, even stand-up comedy, both developed in-house and presented work from around the world. Soho’s Writers’ Centre receives and reads some 2,000 scripts per year, responds in depth to 20 per month, and sponsors workshops, mentorships, the Verity Bargate Award (£5000, a Soho residency and production), and “The Soho 6,” which commissions half-a-dozen playwrights and provides a six-month residency to work on a new play Soho will produce.

• And the wild card. Which tiny theatre recently celebrated its 30th anniversary, pays only its artistic director, won more than 30 Off–West End and other awards, and has a significant reputation in new-play production? The Finborough Theatre may seat only 30 to 50 patrons, utilize unpaid talent and receive no Arts Council funding, but it attracts high-quality artists, routinely discovers new writing talent, and (forget those two-or-three-character scripts!) produces large-cast plays with complex design demands on its postage-stamp size stage. Since 1999, artistic director Neil McPherson (himself a multi-award winner, including the 2010 Writers Guild Award for Encouragement of New Writing) handles the everyday running of the theatre, aided by four interns and a team of script-readers. Because it’s unfunded—McPherson proudly quotes Joan Littlewood motto: “This work has been produced without any help whatsoever from the Arts Council”—the Finborough can use unpaid artists. Many experienced professionals choose to work there, either on a profit-share or volunteer basis, benefitting from the networking and the many casting directors, industry professionals and top critics who routinely attend.

Striking Facts, Novel Ideas

New play, sold-out house. In our five months in London, we were amazed to discover that most new plays sell out, many before they open. Moreover, new plays attract astonishingly diverse audiences (age, income, ethnicity), especially at fringe theatres.

Adaptations are vital components of new-play culture. From Duncan Macmillan’s sharp, sexy adaptation of Ödön von Horváth’s Don Juan Comes Back from the War (Finborough), to Richard Bean’s freewheeling One Man, Two Guvnors from Goldoni (National), from the Young Vic’s Wild Swans, adapted by Alexandra Wood from Jung Chang’s book (co-produced with American Repertory Theater and Actors Touring Company), to the haunting The Kreutzer Sonata, adapted by Nancy Harris from Tolstoy’s novella (Gate Theatre), we were impressed by the prominence of robust adaptations in London’s new-play culture. As Katalin Trencsényi of the London Dramaturgs Network observes, “Shakespeare, in effect, adapted previously existing stories to create something new. Many contemporary London playwrights do the same.”

The Antelopes, an informal network of about 130 professional playwrights at all stages of their careers, meet every few months above the Antelope pub in London. Started as a one-time gathering in 2009, called by playwrights David Eldridge, Duncan Macmillan and Robert Holman to meet and share industry experiences, Antelopes welcome all playwrights currently working in the U.K. The only criteria: Make at least part of your living, however small, writing plays. “There are no membership fees and no formal structure, and the group’s opinions are as diverse and as contradictory as its membership,” say Eldridge. Antelopes are available for consultation on any professional issues affecting playwrights.

Go to the restroom! At the Bush Theatre, each bathroom stall door features a greatly enlarged single page of a new play, replete with the writer’s cross-outs, revisions and margin notes. The Royal Court’s Young Writers Festival sought 100-word plays, posting the winners on every available surface: bathroom stalls, staircases, beer coasters. (There’s no escaping new writing—it’s everywhere.)

Bench seating. Other than West End venues, most fringe theatres—even the Young Vic’s second stage, the Donmar, Almeida, Hampstead and Tricycle—put patrons hip-to-hip on long benches rather than in separate seats. At sellout shows, ushers urge patrons to squeeze together to fit in the latecomers. While less comfortable, this creates community, a sense of shared experience—and helps catalyze talk about the play among strangers.

Belly up to the bar. Every theatre, whether posh or barebones, has a bar/café, packed before and after the show. Food, wine and beer are allowed into the performance space. Also, outside the West End, we happily heard no recorded or live curtain speeches—ushers quietly remind each patron, upon entering, to turn off phones. London theatre, in short, is a place less fraught with American-style prohibitions, and more a place of welcome and conviviality.

What Did We Learn?

Since Outrageous Fortune was published, American theatres have responded with some farsighted, bold new-play programs—Arena Stage of D.C.’s American Voices New Play Institute, Signature Theatre Company of New York’s Residency Five and Berkeley Repertory Theatre of California’s Ground Floor are three examples among a host of such initiatives (to which Londoners are already paying attention). Some of the best of what we encountered in London is also happening in our own country. But new-play production in the U.S. remains fraught. Trying to “finish” plays through developmental readings or workshops—rather than in production—drains funds, resources and, most important, playwrights’ energy and inspiration. Failure to provide published scripts during premiere performances limits the life of new plays, making too many of them one-trick ponies.

And perhaps the most crucial questions remain: Where do American writers exist in the ecology of new ideas? How important is theatre to our national and global dialogue? In the U.S., the absence of public funding forces the creation of a writer-friendly culture—especially a diversity of voices, stories and ideas—onto individual theatres and private funders rather than valuing new writing as crucial cultural and political resource. The geographical immensity of the U.S., its isolationism, a reluctance among many playwrights to engage in a national dialogue on American and global issues—all this adds up to a lack of urgency; writers here are simply not central spokespersons in this debate. And theatres remain less important than they can and should be.

Notable exceptions notwithstanding, why do American ticket-buyers attend a new play? Because they’ve heard it’s good, they’re loyal to a theatre, there are “stars,” or perhaps they’re curious about what’s new? These are good reasons, but where does that leave the writer or the theatre? Trying to make each new play into an “event” rather than building on, challenging and expanding our most cherished, essential concerns. Where’s the urgency? What if U.S. theatregoers came to plays to find out who we are as a people, and what values unite (and divide) us? What if all ages, all colors, squeezed hip-to-hip with drinks in hand, sought to experience, together, all the ways—funny, sad, audacious, confounded, reflective—that we relate in a global society? That would be something. 

Robert Hedley and Harriet Power share a combined 12 years as artistic directors (Hedley as founding artistic director of Philadelphia Theatre Company, Power as artistic director of Venture Theatre and associate artistic director of Act II Playhouse) Hedley directed the Iowa Playwrights Workshop from 1980 to 1990 and currently runs